What's the Frequency, Marvin?
If the St. Paul City Council had its druthers, Marvin Liszt would no longer exist.
In recent weeks, the attorney for Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns 464 billboards in St. Paul, has made a series of contentious--and seemingly bizarre--appearances before the City Council. The issue at stake is whether Clear Channel has the right to repair inoperative billboards, but that would be difficult to discern based on Liszt's actions.
On May 7, Scenic Saint Paul, an organization that works to stem billboard blight, appealed the St. Paul Planning Commission's decision to allow Clear Channel to repair a billboard at the intersection of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue. Rather than argue the merits of the case, however, Liszt chose to insist that Scenic Saint Paul had no legal standing to lodge the appeal. Liszt even brandished papers showing that he in fact had incorporated as Scenic Saint Paul in March, and was therefore the rightful representative of its interests. "Scenic Saint Paul does not exist," Liszt repeatedly--and paradoxically--insisted.
The council was bewildered by Liszt's actions. After listening to the media conglomerate's attorney for several minutes, an obviously annoyed Chris Coleman cut him off. "Point made, move on," the Ward Two council member declared. This only angered Liszt. "I have a right to talk, sir," he insisted. "I don't need to sit here and be belittled."
Coleman then pointedly pulled out his cell phone and ignored the attorney. When Liszt finished testifying, Coleman moved that the council not only grant Scenic Saint Paul's appeal, but also waive the applicable $330 fee. "I'm deeply offended by his comments, I'm deeply offended by his behavior, and I'm deeply offended by the arguments that he makes to us," Coleman said. "I don't understand how, as an attorney, he can stand up there and behave in that fashion." The council endorsed Coleman's measure by a 5-2 vote.
Liszt was not chastened. Three weeks later, another billboard dispute came before the council. When John Mannillo got up to testify on behalf of Scenic Saint Paul, he quipped that he was actually speaking on behalf of Clear Channel. The joke drew laughs from the council, but Liszt was not amused. After the hearing (which Clear Channel again lost) he threatened to sue Mannillo. "I just turned and walked away," Mannillo recalls. "I'm thinking to myself, 'this guy's really gone off the deep end.'"
Last week yet another billboard dispute was on the City Council agenda. Fortunately for Clear Channel, perhaps, it was laid over before Liszt had a chance to appear on their behalf.
"To try and make a case by doing this kind of stuff is completely inappropriate," says Fourth Ward council member Jay Benanav. "I think they look petty, they look desperate, and it's rude."
Chris Coleman, noting that Liszt continually lectures the council that it is a "quasi-judicial body," is equally fed up. "He should be thankful we're only quasi-judicial and not fully judicial because if we were, he would have been held in contempt of court," he notes. "Liszt's actions--they just have lost all credibility in the eyes of the council."
For his part, Liszt insists that his actions are appropriate and that the City Council is on an anti-billboard crusade. He vows to fight the decisions in court. The company already has multiple lawsuits pending against St. Paul in Ramsey County District Court. "The city of St. Paul could have chosen a much more sane and rational way to deal with this issue," Liszt declares. "They chose not to, which has resulted in this ongoing litigation that we'll have over these issues."
Benanav says the council will not be cowed by legal threats. "There are lots of cases where somebody says, 'If you do this, we will sue you.' Well, so what? Our job as council members is to apply the law appropriately."
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